BOOKS: Return of the Condor
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2006:
Return of the Condor: The Race to Save Our Largest Bird from Extinction
by John Moir
Lyons Press (246 Goose Lane, Guilford, CT 06437), 2006.
187 pages, hardcover. $24.95.
Science writer John Moir relates in this book the drama of
the last-ditch captive breeding program that undoubtedly saved the
Californian condor from extinction. Inter-agency politics and
eloquent lobbying by non-interventionists, led by Friends of the
Earth founder David Brower, nearly kept the Condor Recovery Program
Brower, who previously headed the Sierra Club and later
founded Earth Island Institute, argued that capturing the last wild
California condors for captive breeding would set a bad precedent for
reducing endangered wildlife to zoo specimens, that reintroduction
would probably fail because captive-bred condors would not learn from
their parents how to survive in the wild, and that recovery efforts
should focus on protecting the condors’ vast natural range instead.
Few advocates of endangered species and wildlife habitat
disagreed with Brower in principle, but in the specific case of the
California condor there were just six left in the wild when the last
were captured in June 1986. Though long-lived under favorable
conditions, they had suffered such a high mortality rate during the
preceding decades that imminent extinction in the wild appeared to be
a virtual certainty.
Noel Snyder of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and staff
at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Zoo & Wild Animal Park managed
the captive breeding program, after Snyder and other scientists
documented the reasons why California condors were no longer thriving
in their southern California and Arizona native environment. Condors
were being electrocuted by utility power lines, and dying from
ingesting inedible trash.
But the chief cause of condor deaths was hunting–not so much
because condors were occasionally shot or poisoned as an inaccurately
perceived threat to livestock, though some were, as because lead
shot riddled much of the carrion that they depend on for food.
Snyder used radiography to prove that when a lead bullet
smacks into a deer, lead particles spray into the flesh of the animal
in sufficient concentration to kill condors through lead poisoning.
Snyder also found that lead poisoning can afflict hunters and their
Nonetheless, the hunting industry for the most part
continues to oppose the gradual replacement of lead shot with steel
and alloy substitutes. Phasing in the transition has been underway
now for more than 20 years, while lead poisoning and ingesting other
toxic waste continue to be leading causes of death among reintroduced
Moir estimates the cost of saving the California condor at
about $40 million, and debates the merits of expending such large
sums to save one species. He points out that many other species
benefit both directly and indirectly from the condor reintroduction.